He faced discrimination on many fronts, but that did not stop Larry Kwong from becoming the first person of Asian descent to play in the NHL.
Born in Vernon in 1923, Kwong was the second youngest of 15 children. His father, Ng Shu Kwong, immigrated to Canada from China in 1884, eventually setting up a store in Vernon called the Kwong Hing Lung Grocery.
Like many young boys, Kwon grew up listening to hockey games on CBC radio. His passion for the sport was obvious even from a young age, and two of his older brothers, Jack and Jimmy, encouraged Larry to start playing hockey.
In the winter, Jack and Jimmy would pour water onto a vacant lot near the family store, creating a rink for Kwong to practice on. Kwong and some of his friends also liked to frequent a nearby pond.
When Kwong was 16, he joined his first hockey team, the Vernon Hydrophones. His natural talent gained him instant attention, and his career took off from there. This is not to say that he did not face significant racial barriers along the way.
In 1942, he was invited to the training camp of the Chicago Black Hawks, but the Canadian government never processed the paperwork that would allow him to leave and return to Canada.
However, he pressed on and in 1946 he was signed to the NY Rangers minor league team, the New York Rovers.
In his second season, he led the Rovers in scoring with 86 points in 65 games.
And on March 13, 1948, Kwong, aka Eng Kai Geong, stepped onto the ice to play for the New York Rangers.
Christopher Woo has launched an online petition to have Kwong inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Hockey was a temporary escape from the segregation surrounding Larry. While his hockey prowess was admired on the ice, he faced overt discrimination outside of the rink because of the colour of his skin, as local barbers refused to cut his hair, he was denied jobs that were traditionally offered to other junior hockey players, and he wasn’t allowed to cross the Canadian border with his teammates for games because of the U.S.’s Chinese Exclusion Act. He hid such discrimination from his mother, as he feared she would pull him out of hockey if she ever learned of the disparate treatment,” said a statement on the petition.
“The media promoted his debut as a curiosity, referring to him as the “China Clipper,” “King Kwong,” and “Chinese Puckster.” But Larry was so much more than a novelty act. Larry’s undeniable skill was affirmed by several hockey legends, including Toe Blake, Dickie Moore, Jean Beliveau, and Herb Carnegie.”
Kwong played 16 seasons in North American senior and minor leagues, which included being named MVP of the Quebec League.
He later moved to Europe, where he played and coached for over a decade and is credited with growing the game in Switzerland.
In 2011, Kwong was inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2013, into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Kwong passed away in 2018.
- with files from Gwyn Evans